Court Sides With Pro-Life Advocates Shackled, Strip Searched

State   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jan 14, 2011   |   7:57PM   |   Washington, DC

A federal appeals court has sided with a group of pro-life advocates, including young women, who were shackled and strip searched after peacefully protesting abortion in Maryland.

Maryland state troopers handcuffed and arrested 18 pro-life advocates for sharing a peaceful pro-life message along a Bel Air, Maryland public street in August 2008. Among those arrested were three young women who were later shackled, strip-searched, and detained overnight by other police.

This week, the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals roundly rejected an appeal taken by defendant police officers in a suit brought by Defend Life, a Maryland pro-life group that sponsored the event featuring pro-life signs held along a busy street in August 2009 The court granted a motion to dismiss the appeal filed by Thomas More Society’s special counsel, Patrick Gillen.

Defend Life filed the lawsuit last year complaining that Maryland State Police, assisted by Harford County and Bel Air city officials, committed lawless arrests and jailing of protesters.

Recently, one defendant, Harford County, agreed to settle with most of the pro-lifers on undisclosed terms. But the case remains pending against other defendants, including the Superintendent of the Maryland State Police, several state police troopers, the Town of Bel Air, and others.

Motions to dismiss the entire lawsuit filed by the Town of Bel Air, Bel Air police officers, the Maryland State Police Superintendent and state police troopers were denied last May, after which some of the defendants filed an immediate appeal, arguing that police acted in good faith and were therefore immune from suit.

The appeals court dismissed that on the grounds that material questions of fact were presented as to whether the police defendants acted in good faith. Indeed, plaintiffs already adduced compelling evidence of bad faith, including legally baseless arrests followed by failure to prosecute belated criminal charges, needless strip searches of fully peaceable, nonviolent demonstrators, and 911 tapes and police recordings. The recordings showed how police enforced a “heckler’s veto” (acting on phone calls objecting to the content of protest signs) in making the arrests, and showing deep police bias — with officers commenting “…they can sit in a cell for an hour … or three or four and rot.”

Tom Brejcha, chief counsel at Thomas More Society, the attorney for the pro-life advocates, emailed abut the court’s decision.

“This dismissal of the defendants’ last groundless appeal paves the way for our continuing to press this case until justice is done, finally and completely,” he said.

Defend Life leader Jack Ames will submit to a deposition on January 26, and the case will then proceed to jury trial.

Thomas More Society is working with other lawyers in the case, including the Alliance Defense Fund, Chris Ferrara of American Catholic Lawyers Association, and Matt Paavola, of Baltimore, former president of Maryland’s Christian Legal Society.

In late December, Paavola talked about the settlement for some of those involved.

“We have settled with the county revolving around the strip searches in the county detention center,” he told the Baltimore Sun and called the settlement “very amicable and the county was very accommodating.”

He said county officials were apologetic in how the arrests were handled. He said Harford State’s Attorney Joe Cassilly was “dreadfully against what the sheriff’s office did and was very supportive of the free speech issue in question.”

The terms of the settlement were not disclosed, in part because, as County Attorney Robert McCord explained to the newspaper, the settlement agreement, which covers the county government and the sheriff’s office, has not been finalized.

“We have agreed in principle to the terms,” McCord said, “but there are a number individual plaintiffs and I’m still waiting for all of them to sign it.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit issued a ruling in October upholding a district court decision that denied the request of several Maryland state police officers to be immune from a lawsuit filed by Alliance Defense Fund attorneys representing pro-life advocates.

“Pro-life advocates shouldn’t be handcuffed and arrested for expressing their beliefs,” said ADF Litigation Counsel Daniel Blomberg. “The 4th Circuit’s decision is a positive development for our clients, who deserve justice after what they endured.”

In its order, the court found that arguments made by ADF attorneys that the troopers culpably enforced a violation of free speech rights protected by the First Amendment and that the arrests constituted retaliation based on the content of speech were sufficient to deny the troopers’ request for immunity for the time being.

During the initial event, the pro-life people were arrested without warning by Harford County State Troopers during their multi-city protest featuring abortions signs. At least a dozen police officers arrived in more than seven marked vehicles.

They had started their peaceful pro-life event along a public road in Harford County but relocated to the town of Bel Air after being told by officers to leave the county for not having a county permit to engage in free speech activities. The officers then arrested them in Bel Air without explanation.

Once in custody, three young women among the group arrested–two of whom were teenagers–were subjected to two rounds of strip searches. Only after the strip searches and a night spent in jail were they told why they were arrested.

The first search took place in the police station parking lot in front of other males. A female officer pulled out the young ladies’ shirt collars to inspect their breasts before reaching down their pants to feel around their waistlines.

The Harford County Detention Center administered the second strip search after the pro-life participants were transferred there. A female officer took the women one by one into a bathroom with a partially open door and ordered them to lift up their shirts and brassieres. Officials cast the pro-life participants in leg irons, denied them permission to call parents until after midnight.

A week after their release, the state dropped the charges ultimately filed against them: loitering, disorderly conduct, and failure to obey a lawful order. None of the participants were ever charged with any sort of permit violation.